Questionable Prosecution, Sure Verdict

Debra J. Saunders

3/7/2007 10:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

You cannot look at Lewis "Scooter" Libby without seeing Bill Clinton.

Like former President Clinton, Libby apparently thought that he was so clever that he could perjure himself -- by lying to FBI agents and a grand jury probing the leak of CIA agent Valerie Wilson's identity. In their arrogance, both men were steamrolled by a truth any idiot in Washington can tell you. To wit: The cover-up is worse than the crime.

Both Libby's boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Clinton were overzealous in using the White House to discredit critics, which made their detractors more powerful than they would have been if ignored. Had Cheney and Libby not aimed to discredit Wilson's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Wilson would not be a hero of the left today. Clinton could have refused to be deposed in the Paula Jones' sexual-harassment case, or even (if you can imagine it) tell the truth, but instead he chose to lie. Enter Kenneth Starr. You know the rest of the story.

After the verdict, juror and former Washington Post reporter Denis Collins referred to Libby as "a very sympathetic guy." Still, jurors apparently believed that Libby concocted a story about learning that Wilson worked for the CIA from "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert, so the jury found him guilty of four out of five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

As Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald later told reporters, "We cannot tolerate perjury." Fitzgerald is right to argue that the legal system suffers when high-level officials decide they don't have to tell the truth.

But if Fitzgerald believes that a special prosecutor has to go after any official misdeed he sees, you have to wonder why he failed to charge anyone -- not Libby and, most notably, not the initial leaker, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- for leaking Wilson's identity. If the answer is, as I suspect, that the leak was a crime only if administration officials knew that Wilson was a covert agent -- and it is not clear she was covert -- then why can't Fitzgerald simply say so?

Such honesty would highlight the utter folly of Libby's claim of Russert as his cover. Libby had every right to tell journalists that Cheney, contrary to news reports, did not send Wilson to check intelligence that suggested Iraq had tried to procure uranium from Niger. Also, if the Bushies did not know Valerie Wilson was covert, they would have had some reason for telling reporters about Wilson's role in the CIA's decision to send her husband to Niger -- although one would hope that seasoned aides would know enough to check around before disclosing any intelligence information.

For the Bush administration, this verdict is bad news. It feeds into the Bush-lied mantra of antiwar critics and leading Democrats, who are unbothered by proof that Joseph Wilson has been no model in truth-telling.

When Joseph Wilson returned from Niger, officials who debriefed him thought that Wilson's information supported the belief that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. As The Washington Post editorialized, "Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth" in saying he debunked the Niger story. The United Kingdom's Butler Commission also found the Niger story to be "well-founded."

Besides, while there were doubts about Iraq's nuclear intentions, the intelligence community and Saddam Hussein's top brass were convinced that Iraq had chemical and-or biological weapons. The experts turned out to be wrong -- but at the time, Bush had strong reason to believe they were right.

Cheney comes across as the albatross of this administration. If Cheney had stuck to simply debunking the he-sent-Wilson story, Wilson would have faded away. And you have to wonder why Cheney, who is supposed to be so smart, didn't sit down with Libby to make sure that Libby gave a true and credible account. Instead, Cheney was doodling about Libby being a fall guy.

Following the trial from my desk, I was hoping that there was enough to Libby's faulty-memory defense to instill jurors with reasonable doubt. I also believe that Fitzgerald should not have gone after Libby when he knew Armitage and Bush strategist Karl Rove were the leakers to Robert Novak, whose column outed Wilson as a CIA agent and spawned this investigation.

But I have to figure that jurors got it right. In the end, there is no denying that Scooter Libby did this to himself. And there's no defending any official who willfully lied under oath.